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Is a PhD in Art History an option for me?


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Hi everyone! I'm currently a junior at a large research university with a major in English (film concentration), with minors in Media Studies in Documentary Studies.

I've been interning this semester at my school's art museum and I've really been enjoying the work. I've always been passionate about art and art history, and pursuing a specialized degree while doing research and writing sounds like something that really suits my interests. Whether it be through working in a museum or at a school, I want to be involved in the academic world after graduation.

That being said, I was wondering if a PhD in art history was a viable option for me, especially without an undergraduate degree in art history. And on top of that, most of my research and interests in the art world revolve around documentary/experimental film and photography, which I feel like isn't something that is often emphasized in a lot of art history programs. It seems that the field I'm looking into is a small subset of modern and contemporary art, which is an oversaturated field as is. I would also prefer not to pursue a MA (I've been fortunate enough to receive enough financial aid to pursue a BA debt free, and I would really like to keep it that way).

Thanks so much in advance!

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For modern/contemporary, I would look into a MA. There are some that offer funding. Programs are accepting far fewer students and just because you get an offer from PhD program, does not necessarily mean you will be also receiving a desirable (or livable) stipend to live off of.

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Depending on the school... you might find a home for your interests in an art history department... but you might find a better home for your interests in a cinema/media studies department, or in a visual studies department, or in an english department.

Which books (published in, say, the past decade) most directly inform your approach to "documentary/experimental film and photography"? What department(s) are those books coming out of? Where do the scholars who matter most to you teach? Which is all to say, there's no cut-and-dry answer to the question of whether you're a viable candidate for a PhD program in art history -- certainly your background in English/Media Studies doesn't take you out of the running... it's more a matter of whether you can make a compelling case for 'why art history'... or even better, 'why X (specific) art history department'...

Also, to underscore theartman's advice... don't rule out a terminal MA. While your notion that PhD work is about "pursuing a specialized degree while doing research and writing" is a lovely one, it's also (I'm afraid) a bit naive. Go out and get some experience first, then decide!


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Film is usually taught in non-art history departments. These can be pure film, or include "new media", which is related to photography. Talk to your profs about existing programs. It is very uneven and many are in development while other previously good programs may have lost several good profs. Still, considering your background, these departments are probably a good option. Unless you find a prof in an AH department whose primary concentration matches yours, you will be very alone. If you get into the film-oriented department, you will still be able to take photography courses in the AH department and get AH profs on your committee. The more specialized departments can be very exciting, in that they are growing, changing, evolving. It's very important to talk to current students, how the department is, where it is going, what the big goals are. Finally, ask yourself, what you wanna do with your degree and see if that degree matches your goals. Find placement records or ask about them. Again, talk to your film profs, look at profiles of professionals in museums, look at specific museums you'd want to work at etc. Consider doing an information interview with museum professionals at your workplace or at other major museums in your town.

Edited by random_grad
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